Landscape photography has long been associated with romanticized depictions of pristine nature and picturesque scenes. Most famously from the 1920s Ansel Adams cultivated an approach to landscape photography that posited nature as separate from human presence. Consistent with earlier American landscape painting, Adams photographed scenery in a manner intended to provoke feelings of awe and pleasure in the viewer, using vantage points that emphasized the towering scale of mountain peaks. With Group f/64 he advocated “pure” photography which favoured sharp focus and embraced a wide tonal range from black to white to record texture and dramatic effects of light and weather.

In the 1970s, a group of photographers emerged with a fresh perspective, challenging traditional notions of landscape photography, leading to the now famous exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape (1975). Organized at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, the show emerged as a watershed moment in defining the directoion of contemporary landscape photography in the late twentieth century. The exhbition included images by eight US photographers - Robert Adams (b.1937), Joe Deal (1947-210), Frank Gohlke (b.1942), Nicholas Nixon (b.1947), Stephen Shore (b.1947) and Henry Wessel Jr (b.1942) - and works by Germans Bernd (1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (1934-2015). The exhibits by the group of mostly young photographers from the United States shifted photographic perception and representation of the landscape. It was a radical contrast to the work of their predecessors - instead of focusing on pristine or exceptional scenery found at national parks, they looked at the human-altered environment and explored the intersection of nature, culture, and urbanization. They trained their cameras on the byproducts of postwar suburban expansion: freeways, gas stations, industrial parks, and tract homes – purposely rendering these banal subjects with a style that suggested cool detachment.

In the exhibition’s catalogue, curator William Jenkins describes the images as “reduced to an essentially topographic state, conveying substantial amounts of visual information but eschewing entirely the aspects of beauty, emotion, and opinion” emphasizing photography as a means to accurately describing a particular place in detail. He takes account of the contemporary critical stance of questioning photographic veracity, suggesting that photography’s “pretense to truthfulnes” allows the medium to be remarkably misleading. The unifying thread of the exhibition was an underlying impulse to systematically register subject matter in a neutral way. The perceived neutrality in these images was borne from convention in the same way Group f/64 achieved expression through the use of sharp focus and rich tonality. If the photographs looked “neutral,” it was because they simultaneously resembled visual materials we associate with anonymity and information (such as topographical maps or real estate photographs), and activated the kind of looking we typically deploy to interpret those materials.

Robert Adams (no relation to Ansel Adams), one of the key figures of The New Topographics, captured the evolving landscapes of the American West. Adams was troubled by the rapid transformation of the landscape he saw around him and looked to photography as a means of recording the destruction of the American West. His images revealed the encroachment of suburban developments, industrialization, and the loss of open spaces. Through his lens, Adams explored the tension between nature and civilization, raising questions about the consequences of unchecked urban expansion.

Lewis Baltz approached the subject matter with a more detached and objective perspective. His images documented the banal and often overlooked aspects of the built environment, such as industrial parks, suburban housing tracts, and commercial zones. Baltz’s photographs highlighted the uniformity and impersonal nature of these spaces, reflecting on the impact of mass production and consumer culture on the landscape. His photographs of new industrial parks in Southern California in particular invoked a sense of Minimalism. By photographing blank, corporate façades head-on, Baltz placed his viewers into a subtly critical confrontation with the homogeneity they represented.

Stephen Shore, known for his meticulous and detailed approach, captured the vernacular landscapes of America. His photographs celebrated the everyday and the mundane, elevating seemingly ordinary scenes to the realm of art. Shore’s work showcased the visual language of the urban environment, inviting viewers to appreciate the beauty and complexity of the man-made world.

The photographers of The New Topographics sought to recontextualize the relationship between nature and culture. They examined how human presence and industrialization had become inseparable from the natural landscape, blurring the boundaries between the two.

By focusing on suburban developments, shopping malls, and infrastructure, The New Topographics photographers revealed the extent to which human interventions had transformed the environment. They highlighted the visual impact of human activities on the land, often devoid of any romanticism or sentimentality.

The New Topographics movement was influenced by various artistic and intellectual currents of its time. It drew inspiration from conceptual art, with its emphasis on ideas and the dematerialization of the art object. The movement also reflected a broader cultural shift, as society grappled with issues of urbanization, environmentalism, and the impact of human activities on the planet.

Though it received a lukewarm reception in 1975, New Topographics has been enormously influential in contemporary photography, both in terms of its attention to vernacular architecture and its cool, cerebral style. The movement challenged the romanticized notion of landscape photography, prompting a re-evaluation of our relationship with the environment. The images placed people into a stance of responsibility towards the landscape’s future and pioneered a more critical and analytical approach to the genre, inspiring subsequent generations of photographers to explore the complex interplay between nature, culture, and human intervention.

The subsequent reputation of New Topographics as a pivotal twentieth century moment came as somewhat of a surprise to the curator and photographers involved. The exhibition has since been restaged in its entirety at multiple museum venues, a testament to its historical importance. Its photographers never considered themselves a school or movement, but the name of the show has come to serve as shorthand for the approach to landscape photography that they initiated. Many younger photographers collected and shared the exhibition’s catalog over the past several decades, and the ideas from the exhibition circulated among photography students—particularly influential were Stephen Shore (the exhibition’s sole colour photographer) and Bernd and Hilla Becher (the only international photographers in the show). The Bechers’ students at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in Germany became known as the Düsseldorf School of Photography, and include the photographers Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, and Thomas Struth, who have each photographed the built environment using a similarly detached, unsentimental style that also harkens back to the New Objectivity tradition.